Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Edgar Allan Poe is a name you’re probably familiar with. The writer has often been called the father of the modern detective story, so it’s only fitting that he’s still stirring up mystery and publicity over 150 years after his death. Let’s explore the history of the man only known as the Poe Toaster.
Edgar Allan Poe became a household name way back in 1845 upon publication of his still-famous poem The Raven. Unfortunately, fame didn’t seem to improve his life at all. He still struggled financially and was said to hit the bottle quite a bit. Just four years after The Raven was published, he died mysteriously at the age of 40. I’ve already done a video covering the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death, which I’ll link below if you’re interested.
Poe was buried in the burial grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, where he’d lived for part of his life. He was originally buried in an unmarked grave, but money for a headstone was finally raised 26 years later and was put next to cemetery gate. Poe’s body was soon moved to the new location. His wife, Virginia Clemm, was originally buried elsewhere, but her body was set to be moved to Westminster at this time. A Poe biographer named William Gill had her body excavated for this purpose but took her bones home and kept them for years before finally sending them back to Baltimore so they could finally be reburied next to her husband’s.
Then, in 1949, 100 years after Poe’s death, rumors began to swirl. Witnesses at the Presbyterian church were seeing a mysterious figure next to Poe’s grave. The visitor reportedly came during the early morning hours of January 19 — Poe’s birthday — dressed all in black, wearing a wide brimmed hat and cloak as well as a white scarf. The person — assumed to be male because of what physical appearance witnesses could see — would always leave three roses and a half empty bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave.
It’s not entirely clear why the Toaster left these particular things. Over the years, it’s been speculated that the roses represent Poe, his wife and mother-in-law (who is also buried there). The cognac is a bit more mysterious since Poe never actually wrote about cognac, but some believe it’s because Poe himself enjoyed it, though he could rarely afford it. As for why the bottle is half empty, there’s no telling. Maybe it’s some sort of weird symbolism that goes over my head — or maybe the Toaster himself just really liked cognac!
An article or two was written in local papers over the years, but the story of the “Poe Toaster” remained somewhat of an urban legend. That is, until 1977.
This is Jeff Jerome. Until recently, he was the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. He’s also central to the story of the Poe Toaster.
Jerome found out about the Toaster in 1977, when he happened by Poe’s grave on January 19th and saw the traditional roses and cognac. The following year, he stopped by the cemetery to see the Toaster but failed to do so, blaming a bathroom break and assuming he missed him in that short window.
When Jerome first starting telling his friends about the Toaster, they thought he was making it up. So in the years following, he would bring them by the cemetery so they could all catch a glimpse of the Toaster.
The tradition continued for over 30 years, and progressively grew. With permission, Jerome began inviting a select few Poe fans into the now-defunct Presbyterian church to watch for the Toaster. And for awhile, every year was relatively the same: Mysterious figure, showing up between midnight and 5:30 am, dressed in black and placing three roses and a half empty bottle of cognac on the grave. He would climb the fence (which I’m pretty sure is illegal), leave the tributes, and be in and out in less than 10 minutes.
In 1990, a photographer from Life Magazine arrived at the scene and took the only known photo of the Toaster. After this, crowds began gathering outside the cemetery, hoping to see the Toaster for themselves. In his anonymity, the Poe Toaster had become somewhat of a celebrity — although the crowd never went above 200 or so people, they often travelled to Baltimore from various places around the country just to see him and his ritual.
In 1993, a note was left at the grave that said “The torch will be passed.” The following year, a younger man appeared at the grave. A note left that year said the original Toaster had died but that his son would continue the tradition. (Some sources say it would be two sons, and Jerome believes there may have been two or three Toasters at this point. But for the sake of clarity, I’ll be referring to the Toaster in the singular form from now on.)
But the new Toaster didn’t seem to take the tradition as seriously as his father. He never dressed quite as nicely and replaced his father’s sweet notes (such as “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you”) with some rather controversial ones.
Poe’s famous short story The Masque of the Red Death ends with the line: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Taking a cue from the story, the Toaster’s 2001 note read: “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A Thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allan Poe evermore!”
I’m no football fan, but this was apparently a reference to the upcoming Superbowl in which the Baltimore Ravens were set to play the New York Giants. Baltimore residents took this as a dig at their beloved team, which ruffled some feathers around town. (See what I did there?)
But in 2004, the Toaster tackled the most taboo, feared subject of all in polite conversation: Politics. This year’s note read: “The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but respect for family tradition the cognac is place [sic.] The memory of Poe shall live evermore!” People believe the Toaster was upset at the French due to their opposition to the Iraq War. Jerome, who had collected the Toaster’s notes as well as his cognac bottles over the years, was initially reluctant to show the note to reporters due to its political nature. But ultimately he decided to share it, saying he didn’t want to censor the Toaster.
In 2007, 92-year-old Poe historian Sam Porpora, who Jerome regarded as a personal mentor, made a stunning announcement. Porpora had been working for years to preserve the graves at the Westminster Burying Grounds and even organized tours of the catacombs beneath the church to drum up publicity. And now he claimed he’d concocted the Poe Toaster story as a publicity stunt. He and his tour guides would take turns dressing up as the mysterious Toaster and carrying out the ritual, never imagining it would get as big as it did.
But there were some serious problems with Porpora’s story. For starters, the Toaster had seemingly died over a decade earlier, and Porpora was still very much alive. He also claimed to have made up the story during an interview in 1967, but the interview he referred to actually happened in 1976. And there was also the fact that church members claimed to see the Toaster as early as 1949. People who knew Porpora also believed he liked to make stories up about the church and burial grounds for dramatic effect. Some even believe that’s why he was “let go” from being church historian and curator of Poe house when the city acquired the property in the early 1980’s. Jerome didn’t believe his former mentor’s story at all, saying: “There are holes so big in Sam’s story, you could drive a Mack truck through them.” He also said he would keep up the vigils and, the following year, over 150 people showed up to watch the Toaster.
But two years later, in 2010, something weird happened. The night of January 19th began as usual — a crowd of about 50 people from across the country gathered outside the cemetery for the annual Toasting. But even during the night, Jerome wasn’t sure the Toaster would come. The previous year, 2009, had been the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth — a fitting time, some believed, to end the ritual and go out with a bang. And, sure enough, by 5:30 am, the Toaster was nowhere to be found.
Still, the crowd gathered again in 2011, hoping the Toaster had simply been unable to make it, that he’d had car troubles or been sick. But for the second year in a row, the Toaster once again failed to show up. At least four people approached the grave with roses and cognac, but none of them arranged the flowers the same way as the Toaster and all failed to give the “secret sign” Jerome had worked out with the Toaster. These people have been dubbed “faux toasters.” In an early morning interview, Jerome, despite his speculation about 2009 being the last year, was skeptical that the tradition was indeed done. He also joked that if it was over, he could finally get some sleep.
In 2012, there was some hope left. About a dozen Poe fans still waited outside the gates. Jerome, however, was prepared to declare the tradition officially dead if the Toaster didn’t show up this year. And just after 6 am, when there had been several imposters but no sign of the real Toaster all night, he did just that.
You’d think that would be the end of the story, but Baltimore wasn’t quite ready to let the tradition die. In November 2015, the Maryland Historical Society, Poe Baltimore and Westminster Burying Grounds held a contest to select a new Toaster. The Toaster “performed tributes” and was chosen by secret ballot to honor Poe the following January. Much like the original Toaster, the identity of this man would also be a secret.
Sure enough, the tribute happened — this time a little earlier, on January 16. The Toaster played a violin and appeared in the early evening, rather than in the dead of night, but still left the traditional roses and cognac. Jerome said nobody could replace the original Toaster, but that fans were excited to see the tradition revived.
In December 2016, it was announced that the Toaster would continue the tradition the following year, which he did. I couldn’t find anything about it for this year or the year before, but I'd like to think it still continues and will for years to come.
But the initial question still remains: Who was the original Poe Toaster?
One theory suggests that the Toaster was a local poet and artist named David “Footlong” Franks. There’s an interesting story about Franks doing a poetry reading that, for some reason, included him firing an unloaded gun in the air above his head. But during this particular performance, he accidentally fired the gun at his head and spent the rest of the reading bleeding from his forehead. This doesn’t have a lot to do with the Toaster, but I just thought it was too weird to pass up telling here. Franks died on January 14, 2009, just days before the second Toaster’s last appearance. But could he be the original? Who knows.
But the most prominent theory seems to be that Jeff Jerome himself is the Toaster, or at least knows who he is. This kind of makes sense when you consider how involved he was with the whole process as well as basically making the vigil famous. He also worked out a “secret signal” with the Toaster, which I’d imagine would be difficult to do without at least talking to him.
Over the years, Jerome has vehemently denied being the Toaster or knowing his identity. He insisted that not only could he have lost his job due to fraud if it turned out to be him, but that he was always inside the church when the Toaster appeared at the grave. He also questioned why he would have stopped the tradition when it was getting so much publicity. Jerome also doesn’t believe the Toaster’s identity will ever be public knowledge unless someone makes a deathbed confession.
Over the years, Jerome’s thoughts about the Toaster’s identity have shifted. At one point, he said if he truly knew who it was, he’d have to tell someone. Later, he said even if he knew, he couldn’t tell anyone, not even his wife. He also said at one point that a lot of people didn’t want to know who the Toaster was at all: “For every person who wanted to know who he was, there were 20 who said ‘Don’t you dare.’ I would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.”
I’ve covered John and Jane Doe cases on this channel, and the Poe Toaster technically fits this description. But this isn’t someone whose life was cut short, or who has a family desperately looking for answers as to what happened to their missing loved one. This is a man who, in all likelihood, died a natural death and chose to remain anonymous. So, while I’m sure a lot of people are curious, it’s not like we need to find out who he is to provide closure to a grieving family. Personally, I think this is one case where the mystery is half the fun and I’m not eager to see it solved any time soon.
So what are your thoughts on the Poe Toaster? Do you think it’s Jeff Jerome, or one of the other men mentioned here? Do you think it’s someone else entirely? Do you even want to know, or would you rather it remain a mystery? Do you think the Toaster chose 2009 to stop the tradition because it was Poe’s 200th birthday, or just because he didn’t care to do it anymore? Let me know in the comments.
All photos in public domain, owned by me or protected under Fair Use. (https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/)